100 Days to Rwanda: How Badly Do You Want This?

GoPhoto_0023_Negative-Scan-01418In the first part, I went over the “why” part of the whole “let’s take the kids on the road and go somewhere vaguely ridiculous for a rather long time” notion. Once you’ve figured that one out, it’s on to more practical decisions, but… 

First things first: you need to want to do it. I mean, really, truly want to do it. This is not just a “sure, I supposed we could go out for Indian tonight” kind of decision. You’re going to be turning your entire family’s life upside down and inside out for months or years, setting in motion lots of expensive and involved processes that can’t be undone so easily (“yeah, so about our house in Vermont that you thought you were renting while we were away? Well, here’s the bad news…”), so before you hit “go” be sure you want to go big and long and far away badly enough. If all you really need to work your travel yayas out of the system is a road trip to the Grand Canyon or two weeks touring southern France on a bicycle, then by all means go do that instead.

It is probably also fair to insist that everyone involved be genuinely keen on the idea – at the very least the grown-ups in the travel party. We’ll get to the (perhaps) challenging task of convincing the kids later on; for now, just make sure that everyone of voting age has a realistic sense of what’s being suggested and agrees on the basics. Just because Dad has the urge and the sabbatical to do it doesn’t mean Mom is willing or able to quit her job to tag along for the year. Or maybe she just really prefers the comfort of home and isn’t real keen on the great unknown. Talk it all through thoroughly – expectations, hesitations, dreams, and fears – well before you start booking tickets and shots at the travel clinic.

Picking a Place

You may not have the luxury of spinning the globe and picking the place of your fancy – after all, if your wife’s company would only ever consider sending her to Kiev in the Ukraine for two years, then that’s where the action is going to be at. (Good luck with that…)

But if you have the luxury of making a choice, well, then you need to make a choice. Of course, there are intrepid souls brave (or crazy and reckless) enough to bring their kids to even the nastiest of places for extended periods of time. Sure, you’ll have exotic bragging rights (“remember that time I was breast feeding by the bonfire on the lake shore and the pygmy rebel leader sailed up in his canoe, demanding to know why our wi-fi was off, only to find himself attacked by Zoe’s pet crocodile? Good times, good times…”), but they may come at a price not quite worth paying. Friends of ours saw their infant son catch malaria while they were working in Botswana – quite scary, and probably nobody’s idea of a good time.

Having said that, it doesn’t necessarily have to involve volcanoes and head hunters. “Overseas” can really be anywhere – even an extended stay in Canada would be different enough, I suppose. For a couple of kids raised on organic milk and fresh air here in Vermont I’m sure six months living in L.A. would be something of an eye-opener (“wow, look – smog…”). Bottom line: if the notion of squat toilets and similar significant changes in lifestyle is simply unappealing to one or more of you, then there are still plenty of opportunities to be found around the world that would offer your family a change of scenery and culture with a lot less hassle.

So, what should matter? Some of the key factors that we considered when deciding if Kigali and Rwanda was a viable option for us were: safety, housing, climate, community, surroundings & infrastructure, schools and language.

  • Safety. Way back when, I used to cherish the notion of traveling to places where no-one else wanted to go. I’ve been deported (Serbia), robbed (India), arrested (Lebanon), shot at (Israel) and generally abused across most continents. In the days before kids, I taught an OFDA-sponsored course on safety & security to relief workers – stuff like land mine awareness, how to behave at a road block, planning and preparing evacuations, conflict resolution, etc. All very useful stuff if you’re willing to work in a refugee camp in a war zone, but 15 years later I absolutely refuse to even consider the option of deliberately and voluntarily putting my kids’ in harm’s way, so active conflict zones were off limits (not to mention that any employer or organization worth working with should flat out refuse to relocate a family to a place where there’s much potential of real danger).

    But my wife and I were also quite uncomfortable with a setting where crime and insecurity would require a permanent state of justified paranoia. Many moons ago, we spent quite a bit of time in Cape Town, South Africa; loved the place and came very close to moving there for a longer stint. But friends of ours recently spent six months there with their kids, and their tales of barbed wire, armed guards, and endless robberies in spite of all their precautions sounded quite off-putting.

    Of course, many Americans believe that venturing anywhere outside the contiguous 48 states is tantamount to suicide because “there be dragons” (or at least terrorists and Frenchmen). They are of course wrong. But a lot of big cities in the developing world really aren’t particularly safe, so you’re either looking at life in a rural setting, where the whole school/community thing gets tricky (see below) or you need to accept living with the fortress mentality. Kigali offered an excellent compromise: it’s the heart of the nation, providing all the big city amenities, but it’s also that rarest of creatures: a fairly laid back African capital with safe streets and little crime.

  • Housing. For an extended stint anywhere, you’ve got to have a decent place to stay and call home. Unlike the good ol’ days where you could crash on someone’s couch for months on end or live out of a backpack in a hostel dorm, that’s just not going to work for your 5-year-old (or for your relationship, for that matter).

    Some people get a kick out of enduring physical hardship and going native: no running water, outdoor latrines, limited access to electricity all add to their sense of adventure and pushing the limits. While I admire their endurance and eagerness to suffer, you’ve got to be really honest and ask yourself: once the novelty value wears off, is anyone in the family going to go nuts without access to at least a lukewarm shower or a place to charge an iPod? In our case, the answer was a definite yes on both counts, so we needed housing that offered at least some basic amenities. Kigali has a huge turnover of rental housing in the expat community; it’s by no means cheap, but it’s readily available and of decent quality.

  • Climate. I don’t function well in the super hot and humid, and my wife’s pretty sensitive to extremes of climate, too. It would not have been a deal breaker, perhaps, but a posting to, say, Bangkok or Jakarta would have brought with it a whole bunch of other requirements (like, constant AC) that I’d much prefer to to avoid. On that account, Kigali is rather exceptional: located almost on the equator, it is obviously hot. But the city (and, indeed, most of the country) is at about 5000 feet above sea level, so it never gets oppressively hot – evenings are downright cool (and as a nice added benefit, the bugs are bearable, too.)

    What kind of climate extreme can you tolerate and still act sociable around the people you love and work with? Parts of China and Russia make Vermont look downright balmy. Before you sign on the dotted line, make sure a year in Ulan Bator, Mongolia isn’t going to build a little too much character in you or your kids…

  • Community, Infrastructure, Surroundings. Some people really are fine living all alone at the hill station a two hour dirt road drive from the nearest village. Others crave the full expat package with a 4th of July party at the ambassador’s residence and nights spent at the rowdy British pub where ex-mercenaries drink to forget while they watch the satellite feed of the Manchester United soccer game from “back home.” Particularly for kids, having at least some other people around is a good thing to mitigate the strange and unfamiliar setting. And just as with the amenities and housing, you’ve got to determine what else you really “need” to have nearby to make it through an extended stay. Some people assimilate and function better if they can connect with an instant community of like-minded compatriots (although it does raise the question: why travel halfway around the world if your first concern is finding the local Americans to hook up with?) Others will want to look for opportunities to interact with the local population either through volunteering or simply making friends.

    On the very practical side of things, long, slow drives on the crappy and profoundly dangerous roads that rule throughout much of the world is extremely exhausting to deal with. You really want to be able to live where your work is – which may rule out scenarios with you living in a city for your family’s sake, but commuting to a field post (where a lone bachelor could simply have set up shop at the research station).

    We likely could have done our family adventure in Dar Es Salaam in Tanzania, but I was reluctant to consider that option. Dar is a big, unappealing city with precious little of interest, especially for kids. There’s just not a whole lot to see or do nearby (I’m not talking about epic outings like a safari or a climb up Kilimanjaro – great and all, but not something you do on whim after school on a Tuesday afternoon). Kigali, on the other hand, is surrounded by beautiful hills where you can hike and bike, and there are lots of options for day trip adventures nearby.

  • Schools. We’ve got a rising 6th and 8th grader. There’s no question that six months away from home in the heart of Africa will teach them more about life than any six months of middle school curriculum back in the United States could ever do. That’s a strong part of the incentive for making this trip happen at all: it’s intended as an immersive “there’s more to life than your cushy little village in New England; come, let me show you it” experience. All the same, “no school” for six months didn’t seem like an option. Certainly, some variation on home schooling and keeping up with homework from home via the Internet would have been quite possible, but we felt that another part of the “away” experience should be the chance to try a semester of school abroad. Which meant that there had to be a decent school at our destination. I’ll go into more detail about the school search and related practicalities later on, but suffice it to say that a) the internet is your friend and b) most bigger cities will have some kind of British/American/­International school that could cater to your kids. Local schools might well be willing to enroll your kids as well, but your mileage would vary significantly.

  • Language. Do you prefer the convenience of an English-speaking country? Or the challenge of a place where English is a second language at best? Even if your kids end up in an English-speaking school, day-to-day life in a country where English is not spoken on the streets is going to be more interesting or frustrating, depending on the attitude with which you all approach it. Rwanda is an odd one. Kinyarwanda is the primary language (and an exceptionally challenging one to learn), and until recently French ruled as the de facto second language (and the language of officialdom and higher education), spoken to some degree by most locals. But the country recently decided to switch its affiliation from francophone Africa to the British Commonwealth, adding English as a third “official” language and the new primary language of the government and education. That obviously won’t change the language of cab drivers and fruit stall vendors overnight, so actively using the French that our kids have been learning since Kindergarten will be a significant part of daily life.

    It would not have been a deal breaker if we had ended up in a country where neither English, French or Spanish was commonly used, but it is certainly more convenient for a relatively short stay like ours to be able to fall back on a language with which we all have a working knowledge.

So, there you have it. Those were some of the key considerations as we started zeroing in on possible destinations. Again: carefully picking your destination presumes you even have that luxury at all, but you could use the same parameters to determine if a given destination might be suitable for your family.

The best way get a feel for a place before the big move is obviously to go see it in person. I had worked in Rwanda briefly in the late 90’s, so had a sense (and a very positive impression) of the place. Lisa was fortunate enough to take part in a couple of work-related trips to Rwanda before our planned move. But a pre-departure visit may not be part of the package you’re being offered, in which case you’d have to spring for a visit for one or more of you out of your own pocket. At the very least, you could take virtual tours via Youtube and travel logs online.

Some might be drawn to a place they’d visited in the past (e.g. Peace Corps volunteers), but it’s worth recognizing that the place you visited 25 years ago will have changed quite a bit since then. Remember, too, that the place that so rocked your world when you were a 21-year old pre-med student looking to spend a week scuba diving on the cheap might not rock quite as hard when you’re a family of four looking for a good place to spend a year together.

Next up: When and for How Long?and “Selling The Kids On The Plan.” Stay tuned.